Random thoughts about healing relics and appreciation for the JSP

In the article Kris and I wrote about the development of Mormon healing to 1847, we discussed the rise of healing relics:

Following the biblical precedent of the Apostle Paul (Acts 19:12), members of the Quorum of the Twelve sometimes touched or sent handkerchiefs to people in order to heal them.[81] Joseph Smith Sr. issued the first extant instruction on such healing as part of Lorenzo Snow’s December 1836 patriarchal blessing, where he declared that Lorenzo would have faith “like that of Peter thy shadow shall restore the sick—the diseased shall send to thee their handkerchiefs and aprons and by thy touch their owners shall be healed.”[82] Such activities were quite rare compared to other means of healing; however they illustrate the degree to which the early Mormons sought to embody the power of the biblical apostles and modeled their healing practices on New Testament precedents.

82. Joseph Smith Sr., Patriarchal Blessing to Lorenzo Snow, December 15, 1836, MS 1330 1, vol. 1, in Selected Collections, 1:31. That Lorenzo engaged in the practice of healing via handkerchief is attested to in Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1884), 264–65.,

The Joseph Smith Papers crew recently expanded the online portion of their content. Whereas the project earlier anticipated publishing 30 volumes, they now talk of publishing 20, with the balance of the material being made available solely on the JSPP website. To kick-start this emphasis, the project has released several minute books (including the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo Minute Book) and documents through the year of 1838 (note that Docs volume 1 still hasn’t even been published yet—as I understand, you can look for it in 2013). This represents a tremendous cache of source materials.

The documents section for the year of 1836 includes the digital facsimiles and typescripts of two “Zion’s blessings.” Ben Park had a nice discussion of these blessings published in the JWHA Journal a while ago [1] (Ben, is there a decent source for this anywhere online?). Basically, those that participated in what we commonly call Zion’s Camp were promised both a “great endowment and blessing” (D&C 105:12 and 18). The endowment of power from on high was associated with the Kirtland Temple, but the blessing was something different. Apparently members of the First Presidency blessed veterans of the Camp because they were “willing to lay down thy life for thy brethren.” [Ibid.]

In the appendix of his article, Ben included excerpts from several Zion’s blessings, including part of a typescript blessing given to Alvin Winegar, which Ben indicates as being held in the LDS Church History Library. Well, the JSP crew have published the preliminary content of a photocopy of a holograph version held at the CHL, the original being in private possession. First let me say that Winegar’s script is gorgeous. Second, it is clear that Ben only included part of the blessing, the balance held a spectacular nugget. On February 7, 1836, the First Presidency blessed Winegar that, in association with a future ministry, he would have:

power to heal the sick— open the blind eyes— unstop the deaf ears— Cause the dumb Tongue of the dumb to sing for joy— many shall seek to touch thy garments— and others shall send handkerchiefs, and Aprons to thee and be healed by this means.

Okay, remember that bit up at the top were Kris and I said that the earliest extant documentation for healing handkerchiefs/aprons was a blessing by Joseph Smith Sr. in December of 1836? Scratch that. Now we see that Joseph Smith participated in a blessing promising the same things in February of that same year. Really, this doesn’t change the general framework of Mormon healing as New Testament recapitulation. It does show that the invocation of Paul was much more part of the zeitgeist than previous evidence indicated.

Perhaps, like Lorenzo Snow’s biography, Winegar’s journal may have some evidence that he actually used material objects to heal. Add reading it to the list of things I need to do.

This post is to highlight the new JSPP website: http://www.josephsmithpapers.org. It is also a big thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to make these documents publicly available. In the future we may look back on this moment as the Documents Spring.

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  1. Benjamin E. Park, “‘Thou Wast Willing to Lay Down thy Life for they Brethren': Zion’s Blessings in the Early Church,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 27-37.

Comments

  1. This is fantastic stuff, J; thanks for sharing. I think the notion of physical materials like relic carrying sacred power is something we often don’t appreciate today, and thus it slips through the cracks of history. But it definitely shows how much religion seeped into their everyday lives, and approaches like this will be crucial was we (finally) try to pin down lived religion within Mormonism.

    Also, a hearty amen to the wonders of the JSP site.

    “Ben, is there a decent source for this anywhere online?”

    Thanks for the plug! The gist of the article can be found here and here.

  2. Awesome, Ben. Thanks for those links. Everyone should go back and read (or re-read those).

  3. Really cool, J.

  4. Brent C says:

    A great post on “material Mormonism.” I hadn’t known how much I’ve been longing for someone to extend Colleen McDannell/Bernhard Lang’s work on Material Christianity, as pertaining Mormonism, until reading your post just now. McDannell taught her students to be cautious of too indiscriminately imposing Protestant/Puritanical models to our understanding of Am. religious history. Maybe the cracks in history correspond with a social blindspot, a Protestant prejudice and general uneasiness with graven images. At any rate, I can see in this work the opening of a valuable vein for (exa)mining the problem of exactly how Protestant are we.

  5. It seems that objects were pretty common in the early Church – perhaps due to the “magical” milieu in which they lived. (I’m not sure I like the comparison to relics as I don’t think these are objects that gained their power due to being owned by someone famous before) It seems though that most people, Joseph included, moved away from using these objects. (Think, for example, the use of the seer stone which declined and then became nearly non-existent) But there definitely were a lot of objects used by early Mormons and referenced even in scripture (like the Rod of Aaron)

    It’s interesting this happens in the NT as well. While Morton Smith’s book is pretty dubious on many levels it seems undeniable that many of the miracles of Christ use methods similar to magic of the era. (Such as the mud on the eyes to heal the blind, for instance)

  6. Brent, there is some really wonderful work being done on material culture in Mormonism. One of my favorite sessions at MHA this year was with Jenny Reeder (by proxy), Josh Probert and Ryan Tobler on the topic. I think we can look forard to some really great stuff in the future on this.

    Clark, you are right that “relic” is anachronistic. Some items became to be viewed as relics, but at the time, they were just material objects. However, I will disagree with that Mormons moved away from them early on. While one can make a case that divining rods and seer stones diminished, material objects in relation to healing grew rapidly in prominence from 1836 onward, including with Joseph Smith. Use of handkerchiefs by the twelve and JS and other items of clothing to heal, become increasingly documented and in Utah some of these objects become bone fide holy relics. Then you have things like the healing canes hewn from JS’s coffin, etc. But even consecrated or holy oil, which gets introduced in the Kirtland Temple liturgy is an excellent example of material objects used in what many traditional viewpoints of the time would have considered magic (as a side note, I believe Kris is working on an article on the material culture of holy oil). You see oil consecrated by certain people having more perceived power. If you haven’t read the linked paper, Kris and I discuss this very thing.

  7. When I was invited out to teach a Cayapa village in Ecuador on my mission in 1989, my mission president wouldn’t give me permission to go so I sent out a box of copies of the Book of Mormon, pamphlets, and a handkerchief I blessed for healing. I left the area before I heard anything back, but a few years later missionaries finally went out there and baptized much of the village. No idea what, if any, role the handkerchief might have played out there, but having known a little about the history of such healing materials, I was comfortable blessing one and sending it out where I wasn’t allowed to go myself :-)

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